In the past three years, Jeff Bezos’ climate philanthropy fund has met 16 percent of its goal to give out $10 billion in grants by 2030.
The Bezos Earth Fund is “able to move quickly; we’re able to take risks that perhaps [governments] could not,” said Andrew Steer, CEO of the fund, while speaking on a recent episode of Bloomberg’s Zero podcast.
The fund was created in Feb. 2020 with a $10 billion pledge from Bezos, the largest-ever philanthropic commitment to fight climate change. Bezos is currently the world’s third wealthiest person, with an estimated net worth of $128 billion.
“Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet,” said Bezos in an Instagram post when he first announced the fund. “This global initiative will fund scientists, activists, NGOs—any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.”
As of 2023, the fund has given out $1.6 billion in grants to more than 100 projects. It has allocated $1 billion each towards nature conservation, restoration and food system transformation, according to Steer, who was previously head of the World Resources Institute.
In order to invest its money strategically, the Bezos Earth Fund uses the System Change Lab, which tracks climate progress through data and analysis to identify which initiatives will be most successful, Steer told Zero.
The fund operates like a venture capitalist, said Steer, meaning it takes high-risk actions with the potential for high-impact. “That means that we can go into things knowing that they may fail, if we believe that the potential return is large enough.”
What about Amazon’s carbon emissions?
Bezos is also the founder and chair of Amazon, which in 2019 pledged to meet net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, ten years ahead of the goal set by the Paris Agreement. However, the company’s emissions have actually grown in the past few years, according to Amazon’s most recent sustainability report. It released 71.54 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021, an 18 percent increase from 2020 and up 40 percent from 2019.
The company has also had an outsized impact on port pollution and congestion, with imports from Amazon, Target, Walmart and Ikea responsible for 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from marine shipping between 2018 and 2020, according to a study by environmental groups Stand.earth and Pacific Environment.
And in 2022, a New Climate Institute report identified Amazon as among 25 companies not doing enough to meet their emission pledges. Meanwhile, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, a group of workers advocating on climate issues, have long pushed the company to commit more money towards climate change responses.
“This is a journey, and there will be times when emissions go up, either because your sales go up or for some other reason,” Steer told Zero regarding Amazon’s recent emissions. “The point is to keep your eye on the prize to 2025, 2030, 2040 and so on.”
Are billionaires the future of philanthropy?
The Bezos Earth Fund head also noted the recent transition towards billionaires taking on climate philanthropy. “One of the great things about some modern philanthropies is that they’re based upon wealth that came because of great ambition and brilliance on the part of their leaders,” said Steer. “For too long, environmentalism has been very well-intentioned and often excellent, but hasn’t necessarily benefited from the kind of leadership that some modern philanthropies can be helpful in providing.”
Billionaire Michael Bloomberg has reportedly invested more than $1.5 billion towards climate and environmental issues, while Bill Gates has invested at least $2 billion in climate technologies.
“I’ve been impressed by how philanthropists are able to work together,” said Steer, when asked if billionaires might attempt to one-up each other with climate pledges. “That’s not to say that, from time to time, there would not be some competition.”